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"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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AMC’s Masterful Better Call Saul Returns

I never really “doubted,” but I did wonder how “Better Call Saul” could move on without the brotherly rivalry that had been at its core for three seasons. The answer, at least over the first three episodes of the new season, is that it really hasn’t yet. Chuck McGill (Michael McKean) may be dead, but his shadow and influence still hang like storm clouds over his brother, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk). There is perhaps no better show of this era when it comes to illustrating how subconscious feelings impact conscious behavior. For seasons, we’ve watched how Jimmy’s resentment of Chuck (and vice versa) guided his actions, and now that drive has been supplanted by a complex blend of grief and guilt. These first three episodes—all that were available to press—are masterful displays of the subtle impact of tragedy on behavior, all against the backdrop of an increasingly-heated drug war that we know will eventually help turn Jimmy into Saul.

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He would probably deny it, but Chuck was often cruel and vicious to his brother. The opening arc of the fourth season of “Better Call Saul” allows one to wonder if that cruelty also somehow kept Jimmy in check. We’ve known since the beginning that Jimmy McGill would become the duplicitous Saul Goodman, and it feels like the death of his brother is a major factor in that transition. It’s not like Jimmy goes off the rails emotionally—if anything, he appears to be in deep denial—but some of his old habits resurface. You can almost forget that Jimmy was a con man, and he still knows how to play that game, escalating his criminal behavior. In a sense, he was trying to go straight to both impress and defy his brother, but that chapter of his life is over. The start of season four basically asks, “What drives Jimmy now?”

Of course, this is not just Jimmy’s story. Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) is back, brilliantly trying to ‘justify’ the check he’s now getting from the criminal enterprise underneath Madrigal Electromotive, and there are others trying to navigate the wake of Chuck’s death, including the always-fascinating Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) and the awful-in-ways-he-may-not-even-realize Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian). There’s a scene in episode two, one of the best in the history of the show, in which Kim rails at Howard for how he’s pushing elements of Chuck’s passing into Jimmy’s life.

And it’s fascinating to watch all of this emotional, character-driven drama unfold against a backdrop of a battle for power in the drug trade in New Mexico. After the stroke suffered by Hector, Nacho (Michael Mando) rushes in to take the throne, but Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) is in the way. And we all know how that will turn out. It may seem like the Nacho/Gus arc is meant as a contrast to the Jimmy/Kim one, in that the former is way more plot-dense (and violent) but both feature the element that has been consistent throughout both “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”: decisions matter. The fate of Walter White was really a product of a rolling snowball that began with the decisions he made in the series premiere. Similarly, the moves that Gus, Nacho, Jimmy, and Kim make have defined their arcs. Nothing feels perfunctory or thrown away on this show, even the smallest details. Even a Hummel figurine can return to impact the narrative.

I had also forgotten how incredibly strong the visual language is on this program. Is it a coincidence that so much of the start of season three feels underlit, as people skulk around by the light of flashlights or Jimmy’s aquarium? The world of Jimmy McGill is getting darker, and it is Saul Goodman who will emerge from that darkness. And we should all be happy both of them have returned to the TV landscape.  

 

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